I sit in my office, foot tapping wildly. The room is an ice chamber of glass and words and gray paper. Letters and numbers swirl around the blizzard, confusing all of us. The anxiety in the stale air echoes along with the tapping of my foot on the ashy concrete. Cold air brushes against my skin and seeps into my chest, soaking my heart in icy fibers.
“Judith,” My assistant’s voice scrapes out of the intercom. I take a sharp breath, calming myself from the shock of her unexpected rasp, and tap the glass.
“He’s here for the report.”
“Let him in,” I say, breathing slowly. The emptiness of the room is suddenly loud and apparent. It’s cold and dead; a catacomb of the government. I look around and feel my chest rise and fall. The door clicks first, and then slides open with a jarring sound. I realize now how long I had been sitting in the tundra in silence. I stand as my boss enters, icy fingers pushing hair out of my face.
“It’s freezing in here.” He says, but it’s more of his way of avoiding hello. I nod. The door slides shut as he walks towards me. I don’t mention I keep it cold because it helps me focus. He doesn’t mention that I’ve been working nonstop since we’ve last spoken. “They’ve made her sign a confessional.”
“What?” My voice is loud and shrill. He looks down, nodding, fixing his sleeves.
“I’ll be candid, Judy, I don’t know what our next steps are.”
“We can’t cooperate with this.” I swallow. “She’s been through enough.”
“If we don’t cooperate they’ll execute her. There’s no reasoning with these people, you know that.” He looks toward the window, thinking for a moment. “There’s more footage. We’ll watch it at the briefing. And then we all figure out what we can legally do. They’ve gotten her to sign the confessional, they can get her to do more.”
“She’s already done so much.” I say blankly. He gives me a chastising glare. My frosted speech wasn’t permitted. My fingers clench. “I can’t watch her anymore.”
“We talked about this.”
“I can’t watch us try and save someone already dead. They’ve broken Abigail and now they’re trying to break us.”
He sighs heavily. I wonder how long he’s been awake. How long we’ve all gone without sleep. I’ve become a frozen figure, working through the night, endlessly. But not everyone can freeze. His thawed eyes move onto me.
“I need you, Judy.”
“I can still write everything, I can still be a part of the team, I just can’t watch her anymore.”
“No, not like that.”
I don’t move. The blizzard wind picks up, whiping at my eyes, burning my skin. I swallow.
“Judy,” He steps closer, the ice cracking beneath him. The crack spreads, the breaking echoes through our minds. I shake my head.
“You should go.” I look down, pick up the gray sheets. “I have the report. Take it. You should go.”
I watch as the man next to me taps his foot, bouncing his folded hands up and down with every scream. His hand carves into the other, grasping for something unachievable. His thumb presses so harshly into the skin it appears brighter, stronger almost. I do nothing as he draws blood.
“The footage ends here.”
I look back up and swallow the nausea away, only imagining what could have paired with the sound on that screen. My eyes sweep over to him, a tower amongst rubble. He is the only one standing among all of us, the one in charge, the one we look up to. And yet he looks down on me for help.
“How many hours of footage have we collectively watched?” I ask the crowd. Most people don’t even turn to me. I stand from the bench, taking in the gray suits and slick hair. The young, professional government faces. The faces of those about to give up, be sick, or both.
“Fifty, so far,” one man says, not taking his eyes off the floor.
He looks up.
“But I’ve archived-”
“Fifty hours of tape have been archived, they’ve sent us fifty hours.” I take a deep breath, smooth down my thoughts. “But that’s fifty amongst all of us. Five-hundred. Now add the other agents who’ve seen it. Then add all the times you’ve played it over in your mind. All the times you couldn’t sleep because when you closed your eyes, you saw that fogy screen, you heard Abigail cry.”
They all slowly make their eyes up to me. We’ve seen torture but somehow I know this is the most human they’ve felt in a long time. We are faceless instruments of the government. We’ve abandoned all human emotion but the ones we watch through a screen. It’s no way to live.
I turn, scanning over everyone except him.
“This has been going on for so long now. She’s been going through this, and worse, and what we don’t see, for so long now. We stay at the base, trying to wager something, figure out what they want, trying to get her back. Hoping she remains loyal the entire time. Hoping she doesn’t give up while those men…” One woman lets out a small cry, immediately covering her mouth. I nod.
“We’ve been trying to save her, figure out what they want. But this…” I motion to them. “This is what they want. They want to force us to watch this, force us to expel time and effort into this hopeless cause, force us to go mental. This is what they want. By trying to stop them we have let them win.”
Saying it aloud makes the weight of the world crash down on my chest.
“So what do we do?”
“We let them know that they have won.”
“She signed a confessional.”
“Everything it says is true.”
My mouth goes numb. Everything is silent and ringing.